Basel

Jean-Frédéric Schnyder

Kunsthalle Basel

The very last part of this exhibition of the work of Jean-Frédéric Schnyder provided a key to the whole. There, in the final gallery, was a concentrated survey of his sculptural work from the '70s, wood carvings and ceramic pieces that demonstrated his obvious enjoyment of the process of solving the problems involved in making such objects—for instance, the two “bamboo sticks,” 1972, that he carved from local wood—and his highly conceptual approach to his work. For the rest of the show consisted of 438 paintings that Schnyder painted since September 13, 1982, representing his attempt to capture in painting the sum total of the visual experiences of his everyday life, his dialogue with real life in all its diversity.

Although Schnyder had pursued several directions with his painting in the '70s, the radical approach of this most recent creative phase opens up entirely new perspectives. By choosing to work in oil, one of the most traditional of all media, he is able to formulate his worldview on a coherent representational plane. He also uses the medium as a means of placing all the individual paintings on an equal basis, of making them all of equivalent value. The continuity and prodigiousness of his output are directly related to this intent. It is only in such quantity that the artist can really test his concept.

Schnyder's overarching theme encompasses an all but unlimited number of motifs—a nearly endless variety of things, experiences, moods, and (in his plein air landscapes) weather conditions directly affecting the pictures. The inner logic of the installation grew out of this approach. It followed, for the most part, the chronology and format changes of the past several years. As a result, the banal could be found right next to the sublime. The size of the paintings varied from room to room, but their bottom edges were aligned throughout. The largest and most recent works, in the first room, showed us a rather metaphysical side of Schnyder. With their visionary content and their bold attack on the sublime experience of nature, on the divine and the demonic, they inhabit an unsettling region where kitsch and art mingle uncomfortably. These were followed by the “Dritschi” series, paintings in a smaller format about the family dog, Dritschi of Mount Everest, which ends up as a bombastic apotheosis of the painter's dog (or the painter as dog). In the third room were paintings in yet a smaller format but with no motific relation to each other, except insofar as all the images derive from Schnyder's everyday reality.

The incipient chaos here was heightened still further in the next room, where a huge wall was hung with paintings in chronological order and in order of decreasing size from the upper left to the lower right. Still lifes of garbage, toys, flowers, landscapes, pinups, nonobjective images, etc., were arranged in what appeared to be a completely arbitrary order. And here at last it became clear that, all together, the paintings formed a kind of encyclopedia in paint of everyday life. Each of them not only depicts an individual motif but also embodies Schnyder's fundamental investigation of the medium of the painted image. One is tempted to escape the crazy world of Schnyder's imagery by assuming that his intention is ironic, but such is not the case. And irony doesn't help us out much anyway, for the evident double entendres and humor in his work are counterbalanced by an existential seriousness concerned with something that can't be explained by art alone—namely, life itself.

Max Wechsler

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.